GPS system is lifeline to firefighters

For remote firefighters that find themselves in the centre of towering infernos, a certain global-positioning device could be a lifesaver. The same device could also improve the overall management of wildfires, keeping vulnerable villages out of harm’s way.

At least, these are the hopes of Guardian

Mobility, an Ottawa-based company that recently announced its first shipment of a remote GPS tracking and monitoring product to North American customers. Initial orders of the Guardian Sentinel GPS have been delivered to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, B.C. Forest Service, Parks Canada, Saskatchewan Environment, and more than a dozen others.

The device is about the size of a paperback and can easily attach to a firefighter’s backpack, as well as water-bombers, bulldozers or supply trucks, according to Jean Carr, Guardian’s president and CEO.

The device sends location data to low-orbit satellites, Carr said, adding there are between one and three such satellites constantly orbiting over Canada. This makes it possible to establish a continuous link.

The satellites transmit the GPS information to a computer server. From there, the data is posted on an online computer-generated map, giving firefighting control centres “”near-real-time”” location information for each crew, plane and vehicle, said Carr. The entire transmission can take minutes, sometimes seconds.

Mike Winder, superintendent of IT systems for the B.C. Ministry of Forests’ protection branch, predicted this type of equipment will become commonplace in the next five years, particularly with the tracking of transport vehicles, passenger trains or buses.

“”We in the (B.C.) Forest Service envision vehicles, and potentially crews (will use this GPS satellite technology) when things get small and cheap enough,”” he said, adding his branch plans to test Guardian’s product in the coming months.

Until now, portability has posed a barrier because satellite transmission devices in the GPS space require power from a car battery to operate for extended periods of time, Carr said. Guardian’s product takes double-A batteries that can power the Guardian Sentinel for several months.

The product is considered better than using walkie-talkies and a global-positioning handheld device because the Guardian Sentinel GPS automatically transmits location information, as opposed to “”radioing in your position every so often,”” he said.

“”It’s a matter of convenience, usability and effectiveness if (a vehicle or a person) is equipped and transmitting on its own,”” said Carr.

Carr said firefighters have told him: “”The bigger the forest fire, the more useless the radio is because everyone’s on it.””

“”If they’re fighting a fire, they’re not going to stop and take a GPS reading and radio it in,”” he said.

For water-bomber pilots, they often have to fly through smoke, which renders them technically blind, said Carr. “”Back at the control centre, they don’t necessarily know which way the pilot will turn to fly out of the smoke. This means miles of difference, which can influence the entire fleet. So better information will lead to better forest fire management.””

Winder pointed out there are a number of companies jockeying for a share of this emerging market, including Guardian, Globalstar, Iridium and Orbcomm. But no particular version of the technology currently represents the “”be all and end all.””

Province saving on operating costs

Nonetheless, Winder said GPS technology has already helped save B.C. millions of dollars in operating costs since it enables the province’s air tanker managers to make more efficient use of their fleets. Managers have an electronic map of the province that tells them where the closest tanker is in relation to a fire.

Guardian is conducting a test where the company has attached the devices to snowmobiles and participants are driving from the Ottawa area to the James Bay watershed north of Timmins.

“”Everything’s working fine. We are tracking them successfully . . . and they’re going at a fair clip,”” said Carr.

This summer, Guardian expects to equip entire firefighting crews with the GPS device.

“”We’re expecting that to happen in a number of jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. We’ve also been invited to meet with Europeans,”” said Carr.

The company expects to get another contract with helicopter skiers this month.

“”There are many recreational applications as well.””

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